09/25/2013 05:31 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

Degrees of Distinction: 12 Associate Degrees for Tomorrow's Jobs

Each time the American economy comes out of a downturn or recession, the jobs that are created by growth require a higher level of technical skills than those that are lost in the decline. But what are the jobs of tomorrow that will be created out of this recession? And, how can today's college students prepare for them?

Amidst a flurry of studies, reports, and commentary concerning economic and workforce development recently, a 2013 study by James Manyika and colleagues at McKinsey and Company, Disruptive Technologies: Advances That Will Transform Life, Business, and the Global Economy (, stands out. The disruptive technologies are defined as Internet mobility, the automation of knowledge work, the internet of things, cloud technology, advanced robotics, autonomous or near-autonomous vehicles, next generation genomics, energy storage, 3D printing, advanced materials, oil and gas exploration and recovery, and renewable energy. The potential impact of these technologies is considerable. For example, the economic impact of mobile Internet is estimated at $3.7 - $10.8 trillion annually.

If these technologies are creating economic value and the jobs of tomorrow, community colleges are preparing graduates for the opportunities these jobs represent. The experience of Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C. is telling. At the turn of the millennium, Winston-Salem and the surrounding area had a vibrant economy, a diverse combination of textile and apparels, tobacco, furniture, and financial services -- sectors all decimated by changes in trade policy and the recession. Today, growth is coming from health care, advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, and IT-enabled businesses.

In a curriculum focused on the advanced skills required for a competitive technical workforce -- in technologies that are disrupting the economic status quo -- 10 associate degree programs stand out:

1. Web Technology: "Ubiquitous connectivity" begins with the smart phones that we carry with us almost 24/7. The demand to create and maintain these apps and networks are creating opportunity for community college graduates with degrees and credentials in Web Technology.
2. Information Systems Security: Students who acquire skills and knowledge in networking technologies, operating systems administration, information policy, intrusion detection, and security administration - all topics and competencies in the College's Information Systems Security - have opportunities today in private sector companies large and small and government agencies, including defensive and intelligence.
3. Database Management: The capability for even small to mid-size businesses and industries to manage data of unlimited scale is now readily available with cloud technology. The limitation on the use of big data and analytics is the availability of skilled technicians with degrees and credentials in Database Management or Informatics to mine cloud-based warehouses.
4. Global Logistics: If, with the internet of things, machines are going to talk with each other, schedule just-in-time delivery of parts and materials, and track and communicate details of production and service directly to clients and customers, the businesses that own these processes better have skilled technicians with degrees in Global Logistics, now a curriculum driven by technologies like GPS and RFID.
5. Mechanical Engineering Technology: The integration of digital design and production technologies are creating jobs in advanced manufacturing. While in many areas the unemployment rate for former manufacturing workers remains high, employers are going wanting for technicians with a whole different level of skills grounded in science and technology. Technicians who can bridge digital design and manufacturing, including additive manufacturing, are in high demand. The skills gap is real.
6. Computer-Integrated Machining: Caterpillar, Siemens, Deere-Hitachi, and Reynolds American are just a few of employers requiring a different level of machinist today. Reading blueprints and producing manual machine parts is only the beginning for these associate degree students. By graduation, they are programming sophisticated multi-axis CNC machines and producing components impossible to make manually.
7. Welding Technology: Yesterday, welders learned their trade at the side of their experienced seniors. Today, welders are joining special metals and materials and programming and operating advanced robotic welders.
8. Automotive Technology/Computer Engineering Technology: Car or computer? The answer may lie in the fact that the autonomous vehicle getting most of the current attention is a product of Google, rather than traditional automotive companies. The new hybrid vehicle will be a powered by internal combustion and electricity; driven by IT and driver; built and serviced by auto technicians and computer engineering technicians with associate degrees and industry credentials in their fields.
9. Biotechnology: A couple of years ago, a leader in the pharmaceutical industry relayed to me a fact that illustrates the disruptive power of technology. He commented that he had done his doctoral research on early gene splicing processes. Today, he must rely on associate degree graduates of community colleges to execute those processes. In Winston-Salem, graduates with an associate degree in Biotechnology are working in tissue engineering R&D, a degree and career requiring a level of science and technology knowledge available in few biology baccalaureate or graduate programs a few years ago.
10. Nanotechnology: Students with skills in microscopy, nano-characterization, and nano-fabrication have unique skills that enable multiple product design and development. Graduates find themselves in R&D labs or production facilities working with coatings, new materials, fabrics and textiles, medical devices or pharmaceuticals. They find themselves in teams working at the intersection of nanotech and biotech, nanotech and energy, or nanotech and clinical health.

At one college, ten associate degree programs provide opportunities emerging from 12 disruptive technologies, creating opportunity for 10,000 students.